Man praying in the Ganges River

If I had to pick a single word to describe the city of Varanasi, India, it might be otherworldly. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited locations in the world and the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. While walking through its narrow web of streets and alleyways a mystical, transcendent aura feels omnipresent. Known as the City of Light, Varanasi has more than 87 ghats (stone steps) leading down to the Ganges River where life unfolds in its rawest form. The river is one of the world’s most polluted, yet every day devoted Hindus bathe in the water believed to purify them mentally, physically, and spiritually.

The Ganges also holds great significance for Hindus when death arrives. Hindus believe that if they are cremated alongside the Ganges and their ashes released into the sacred water, the cycle of reincarnation will end for them and they will reach Nirvana. It’s possible to view the cremation site at a distance from boats that ply the river.

Every night of the year at the Dashashwamedh ghat, seven priests perform a  45-minute ceremony honoring the River Goddess Ganga. This aarti ritual includes waving incense, ringing bells, and chanting mantras in unison. The most remarkable component, however, is seeing the priests slowly sway while holding flaming brass lamps.

Beyond Varanasi’s ghats, there are hundreds of temples to visit, and the narrow streets are ripe for exploring everyday life.   Travelers needing a break from the frenzied pace of the city should visit Sarnath, an archaeological site a few miles away,  where it is believed Buddha first began teaching his followers.